Cliff Shelf Nature Trail Loop

Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Trip Date: Saturday, September 22nd, 2018
Last Updated: Wednesday, December 19th, 2018
By Ricky Holzer

Hike Information

Rating ★★★★☆(4/5)
Overall Difficulty Easy
Navigation Difficulty     Easy
Distance 0.5 miles roundtrip
Time 30 minutes
Terrain Hilly
Best Seasons All
Family Friendly Yes
Dog Friendly No
Accessible No


Hike Summary

Located just up the hill from the Ben Reifel Visitor Center, the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail is a short trail with incredible views of a spiky ridge of badlands rock formations and the vast prairie extending to the south of the park. You'll also see an unusual sight for the park: a juniper forest (pictured below). The small canopy provides shade to help you beat the heat on the notoriously hot summer days in this desert-like environment. This is a worthwhile stop for anyone visiting Badlands National Park.

Juniper forest with a badlands backdrop

Juniper forest with a badlands backdrop

The trail starts as an accessible boardwalk that gradually slopes uphill until the boardwalk ends at an overlook with the view of the badlands pictured below and two benches to sit and enjoy the scenery. Facing the opposite direction, an interpretive sign explains how the formation towering above the juniper forest pictured above was created. Over the course of time, water eroded the base of the rock until a large chunk broke off and crumbled downward, creating the scree slopes at the base of the sheer cliffs.
The view from Cliff Shelf looking southeast towards the pointy badlands formations

The view from Cliff Shelf looking southeast towards the pointy badlands formations

After the boardwalk ends, the trail is dirt until it reaches another boardwalk that leads to stairs, like pictured below. These several flights of stairs lead to an upper observation deck, but during the climb you can rest on the landings and enjoy the views to your left. Even though the boardwalk has ended, it is highly important to remain on the trail; throughout the rest of the hike you can see evidence of many past visitors choosing their own adventure and trampling the prairie grasses and eroding the soil. Remember that this park receives over one million visitors each year, and the environment would look much worse if every one of these visitors decided to step off trail. Trust me, you can see anything worth seeing from this trail, and if you're looking to do some of your own exploring, try the Door Trail where you can roam freely atop badlands formations without a set trail.
Stair steps leading to the upper viewpoint

Stair steps leading to the upper viewpoint

From the upper viewpoint, you'll have amazing views of the endless flatness of South Dakota punctuated by ridges of rock, as pictured below. As you see the trail below you, you'll better appreciate the height you've climbed in such a short distance thanks to those stairs. You'll be happy to know that the remainder of the trail from this point is downhill (or perhaps more correctly, downstairs).
The view from Cliff Shelf looking south with the trail continuing in the distance

The view from Cliff Shelf looking south with the trail continuing in the distance

At this point, the trail lowers into the forest of juniper trees giving you some occasional shade, as pictured below. The boardwalk disappears and you'll be walking on dirt again, so let me reiterate the importance of staying on trail here! In the picture below you can see evidence of a side trail on the right side of the path even though the trail is clearly visible with wooden edging.
Juniper trees create some of the only shade in the park

Juniper trees create some of the only shade in the park

The trail's loop eventually closes, and you can turn right to head back to the parking lot. Another good hike in Badlands National Park, and a place you should definitely stop along the scenic drive through the park. Connect with me using the social media links below and share your adventures!

Important Information

Dogs are prohibited on all trails in Badlands National Park. A very short portion of the trail leading to an overlook is an accessible boardwalk, but the rest of the trail is unpaved and contains stairs. This is a good trail for kids since it is short and easy to follow with plenty of good scenery. You can hike this trail in all seasons. In fact, this is the only trail in the park with any shady trees, making it one of the more comfortable hikes during the hot, hot summer. However, this trail is unmaintained in winter and snow and ice may cover the boardwalk. Expect to see plenty of people at any time of the day, though there will be fewer the earlier you arrive.


From Interstate 90, take exit 131 for South Dakota Highway 240 (you'll see a brown sign for Badlands National Park and the Minuteman Missile National Historic Site Visitor Center). Head south and continue to the park entrance station. Pay your fee, continue straight, then turn left into the parking area labeled with a brown sign for the Cliff Shelf Nature Trail.

Google Maps Directions

Parking, Fees, and Facilities

Entrance to the park requires paying the $20 vehicle entrance fee ($25 starting January 2019), except on designated fee free days. Annual passes for Badlands National Park are also available at $40 ($50 starting January 2019). Interagency annual passes are available for $80 with discounts for seniors, military, and those with disabilities. Visit the Badlands National Park webpage about fees for more detailed information. There are no facilities here, but bathrooms, water, information, and a gift shop are available just down the road at the Ben Reifel Visitor Center.

Nearby Hikes

The expansive south-facing view from the top of the notch
Notch Trail
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
The end of this trail is a window into the awesome formations of the badlands
Window Trail
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
The outstanding desert-like badlands formation at the end of the Door Trail
Door Trail
Badlands National Park, South Dakota
The undulating topography contained in the Medicine Root Loop
Saddle Pass to Medicine Root Loop
Badlands National Park, South Dakota

External Links